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What is So Great about Latin?

The historical reasons for learning Latin can help us and our students today.

“Do we have to do Latin?” Students gloomily contemplate its grammar charts, teachers of other subjects wonder what it’s doing in the curriculum, and homeschooling parents find it a constant thorn in their sides. Do we study Latin as a mental exercise, like math? To improve our English? To get a higher SAT score? Many of us aren’t sure, and we wish we could do something useful instead of studying a dead language.

But Latin is not exactly dead, and it’s not even just a language. It is the embodiment of an ideal. Let’s see how by taking a look into linguistics and history with the help of Jürgen Leonhardt’s book Latin: Story of a World Language.

As Leonhardt points out, Latin is not simply a “dead language.” More precisely, Latin is a fixed literary language that was used as a common language or lingua franca in the western Mediterranean and, later, around the world. Latin is fixed because in the first century BC when a literary canon of ideal Latin style was defined, Latin stopped evolving as languages naturally do. For many centuries afterward it was learned in school as a non-native language wherever in the world Graeco-Roman culture spread, and these diverse peoples used Latin as a common language to communicate with each other and to share a common culture. And so it was that a North-African bishop, a Czech educational reformer, and an American founding father could speak the same language and operate within the same culture even though more than a thousand years lay between them. Only a closer look at each of these two phenomena—that Latin is both a fixed and a common language—can show us why Latin is special.

Accidentally freezing the Latin language is one of the little-known achievements of the “Golden Age” Latin authors—Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Livy, and others. More than just writing fine speeches and beautiful poetry, they aimed to transform their language. The Latin of their time had an inferiority complex because of Greek, its universally admired older sibling. It wasn’t just that Greek writers had long expressed the subtlest reasoning and the grandest epics that the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world had ever known. More than that, the fifth-century Greek writings that were called “classical” (of the highest class) were humanistic—not in the modern, atheistic sense of humanism, but in the original sense that these writings reflected the Greek pursuit of the perfection or arete of the individual, especially through the cultivation of language and thought. This was unusual in the ancient world, when writing was used only for administrative and religious functions, even in great civilizations like Egypt and China. The Greeks did something new when they wrote down conversations of all kinds, from philosophical dialogues to ribald comedy.

A few centuries later, Latin authors chose Greek models and tried to do the same in their younger language: Cicero wrote speeches like a new Demosthenes, Virgil wrote of an epic national past like a Roman Homer, and so forth. What these Latin writers didn’t realize is that their works would be so revered that they would be used as standards of correct language by all future Latin writers, while the Latin spoken in the streets (which was already different from the Latin of the educated) would continue to evolve further and further away from written Latin, until it became the Romance languages that we know today. The point is that this constellation of first-century Latin writers didn’t create an ideal Latinity just for its beauty, or just so that they personally would be famous for all time. They sought to imbue Latin with Greek humanism, and so Latin became an embodied ideal.

The ideal did not entirely disappear as long as Latin survived as a common language. Through the fall of the Roman Empire and the tumultuous changes that overtook the Mediterranean in the “Dark Ages,” Latin remained as the vital link to a humanistic past. Leonhardt estimates that 99.9 percent of all extant Latin texts were created after the fall of Rome. Most of these writings were administrative, but literary Latin in the spirit of the Greeks continued in a steady stream throughout the medieval period, and it gushed forth spectacularly in the Renaissance: we have only forty Latin dramas from antiquity, for example, but five or ten thousand from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

Just as significant as the outpouring of works in Latin was the work done on Latin. Renaissance humanist teachers brought Latin back to classical standards, purging it of what they thought were medieval corruptions. They raised the bar of acceptable Latin style so high that some historians have accused them of killing the language by making it unrealistically difficult. Leonhardt concedes that there is a grain of truth in this, but on the other hand, the same humanist teachers developed a wider range of conversational Latin and more sophisticated teaching methods than ever before, so that Latin became an all-purpose language. “In this sense,” Leonhardt writes, “Latin was the first modern European language.” Latin served as a template for transforming the vernaculars from administrative or court languages to all-purpose languages used by everyone in an entire country where previously countless different languages were spoken. The humanist teachers themselves spearheaded this development of English, Spanish, French, etc. into national languages. The Greek humanist cultivation of language, then, eventually gave birth to our modern languages, and Latin was the middleman.

Why does any of this history matter to us now, you ask? In an age when many of us are not sure why we should study Latin, it’s useful to look back and see what the reason used to be. As we’ve seen, in the times when it flourished most, an important function of Latin was to embody the humanistic spirit of classical Greece so that students of Latin strove in language for the Greeks’ arete. Current methods of teaching Latin are heavily influenced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German classicism, which emphasized a mastery of the grammar as a mental exercise rather than fluency in the language. But even now the Renaissance humanist method, which in its glory days was an obsession with expressing the best thoughts in just the right way, still glows dimly.

However, implementing this pursuit of an intimate fluency in Latin would take countless hours more than Latin already does in the curriculum. Would this be worthwhile now, when English is the new Latin all over the world? Is the “Latin lite” that many of do instead worthwhile, even if it does take up less time? How much time must we spend with the language for students not only to gain a passable reading ability, but also to recognize in it a pursuit of arete and a care for elegantia, beauty of expression, which then begin to sway their affections and remold the patterns of their lives? These are difficult questions, but we can only answer them if we know what Latin was in the past—an embodied ideal that changed the world.

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